Last week I was engrossed in Isabel Allende’s novel, “Island Beneath The Sea.” I turned the final page during a drive to Toronto and was so spellbound that I had to fight the urge to snap at my husband when he dared ask me a question. I wanted to cling to that feeling, that indescribable emotion, when a book ends and you know the story will never continue, and you’ll never feel that way again because the story has already been told. It’s a delicious sensation, though this particular time it made me want to weep.
I’ve read a few of Allende’s books, including “Eva Luna” and “Daughter of Fortune.” Both I enjoyed immensely. “City of the Beasts” was less riveting, but perhaps the fact that I was reading it in Italian with a dictionary in the other hand had something to do with that. “Island Beneath The Sea” I found difficult to get into at first, but about halfway through, the story really began to move and I couldn’t put it down.
It’s the story of a young slave girl named Tété in eighteenth-century Saint Domingue (Haiti), a truly hellish time to live there. Sections of the book are told from her perspective, but mostly it’s a third-person narrative, following the life story of her master Valmorain, a weak French man whose abolitionist philosophical leanings are quickly demolished upon his arrival in the Antilles. He justifies keeping slaves by his need for the money they generate.
I was particularly interested to read about the famous slave revolt which resulted in the abolition of slavery and the foundation of the state of Haiti. Apparently, together with the American Revolution, it was the only successful attempt to achieve permanent independence from a European colonial power in America before the 19th century, though it resulted in the deaths of an estimated 350,000 Haitians and 50,000 Europeans.
The book is depressing, as it describes the sickening abuse of slaves by white masters and overseers. The injustice is staggering. The saddest part of the book is that Tété is never really vindicated in the end. She finds happiness of a sort, and freedom – a great improvement over her life as a slave – yet still must live with great sadness. She loses children and lovers and dignity over the years, losses that truly devastate a person, yet she continues to plod onward, sustained by her voodoo faith and her love for the children who still live.
Despite my desire to weep as I turned the final page, it was a great read. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I finished.